A smile etched across Harold Varner III’s face.
His season with LIV Golf was almost over and the road ahead, while admittedly uncertain, included what had been a pipe dream for professional golfers – a genuine off-season.
“I’m going to hunt, practice. I just got into The Grove XXIII [Michael Jordan’s uber-exclusive golf club in South Florida],” Varner laughed at last week’s LIV Golf finale at Doral. “I’m pumped. I’m going to do some golf trips, some hunting trips, play with my kid. I’ll find something to do. That’s what you want to do in life, you want to make a living so you can grow old and enjoy life.”
LIV Golf converts have been consistent on this front since the beginning. Lodged somewhere between “growing the game” and financial security in the hierarchy of talking points, the move to LIV and its limited 14-event schedule would allow for the type of extended break players have always lobbied for.
For Varner, the 2 ½- to 3-month break is a chance to spend time at his 16-acre home in Gastonia, North Carolina, while 46-year-old Henrik Stenson had a much more detailed agenda for the first real offseason of his professional life.
“I’ve been kind of longing for that for 17 years and now I finally get it,” Stenson said. “I’m going to make the most of it. I’m going to be at home [in Orlando] for a big part of it and then we’ll go to Sweden for Christmas. I’ll workout, spend time with family. I don’t know if you’re allowed to say that. You get hate mail if you say you want to spend more time with your family.”
Stenson and many of those who joined the Saudi-backed league have been criticized on social media and beyond for using LIV’s limited schedule as a motivating factor. Detractors claim the decision to join the breakaway league was motivated entirely by the guaranteed money players like Stenson received, and it’s a fair assessment. It’s also an oversimplification.
Time away from the game – whether it’s with their families or their trainers – has always been on a pro golfer’s wish list. The millions in signing bonuses drove players to LIV, but a true offseason didn’t hurt the sales pitch. The question now is, how do players plan to spend their long-awaited “me” time?
Schedules will vary depending on the player, but most have circled the Saudi International on the Asian Tour in February for a return to competition.
“I’m genuinely excited,” said Paul Casey, who has earmarked the Saudi International as his next start. “Spending time with my family will be first, but drive my cars, take them to the racetrack. I genuinely love [cars], my passion outside of golf is cars.”
For Varner, his schedule might not be completely void of tournament golf. At 46th in the world rankings, he’s motivated to attempt to stay inside the top 50 by the end of the year to secure an invitation into next year’s Masters.
Before the end of the year, there are limited options for most of the LIV players. They could play the Indonesian Masters in December and as a former champion, Varner is also eyeing the Australian PGA, where he could also earn world-ranking points.
Kevin Na had his sights set on at least one event over the remainder of 2022, the QBE Shootout, which he and Jason Kokrak won last year, prior to both joining LIV Golf.
“I don’t think we’re going to get invited back,” Na said last week. “The host didn’t get invited. When Greg [Norman] doesn’t get invited to be host I don’t know how that’s going to go for us.”
The QBE Shootout field was announced on Wednesday. Na and Kokrak were not listed.
So instead, Na said he’s looking at adding a few Asian Tour events to his schedule to maintain the competitive edge. But mostly, he’s looking forward to an extended break to prepare for 2023.
“My trainer and I talked about some changes I want to do. We have a good amount of time off where I can train harder than I normally would because I have so much recovery time,” he said. “We’ve talked about implementing some things into my golf swing where maybe I pick up a few yards. I feel like that’s the missing link in my game and maybe I have a chance this offseason to change that.”
Na, who is currently 41st in the world, was also eyeing the top 50 and a potential Masters invitation, but it will be difficult to hold tight. While LIV players are universally embracing a real offseason, there is a competitive reckoning. Whether clinging to world-ranking points or just the notion of competitive reps, some conceded the need for a more productive few months.
“For guys in our 40s, it's welcome in a way, but at the same time rust builds. You don’t want to let the competitive beast inside you get too much sleep because he might not know how to wake up,” Graeme McDowell said. “It’s not like you’re 25 or 30 anymore where you can switch it on and off quickly.”
Unlike on the PGA Tour, McDowell and the other DP World Tour players who joined LIV have been allowed to keep playing the European circuit, and the Northern Irishman said he’s looking into a possible hybrid schedule to start next year.
“I may look at the European tour schedule right before the Saudi International,” McDowell said. “If they’d like to have me or don’t like to have me, we’ll make that decision when the time comes. I may try to play just before or just after [the Saudi International]. I may try to play a couple in the Middle East around that time.”
Others, however, seem at ease with letting the competitive itch come to them.
“There are plenty of good games at Whisper Rock [in Scottsdale], you don’t have to worry about that,” Casey said. “If you’re not sharp at Whisper Rock you end up paying Colt Knost a couple hundred dollars and, let’s be honest, no one wants to do that. Colt Knost is the reason to stay sharp.”
A tentative 2023 LIV schedule has the circuit starting its season in February in Mexico, which would allow players like McDowell to play their way back into form at the Saudi International or on the DP World Tour, depending on a court ruling in the United Kingdom in early February that could bar players from the circuit because of their participation in LIV events.
But mostly, players just want to get away. For the majority of LIV players, the breakaway circuit’s first year has been tumultuous and some quiet time away from the noise will be welcome.
“I’m trying not to overreact. I haven’t played the way I’ve wanted to the last few months, but a lot of that has been noise and distraction and everything that’s gone with the negativity of playing LIV,” McDowell said. “I haven’t handled it as well as other guys, but I’m starting to feel better about myself the last six weeks or so. I need a balanced offseason.”